Let’s admit that we love preseason rankings. We love them because we need something to talk about in the long offseason, and, this year, it’s all about who can knock the SEC off the championship throne it’s held for six years. Here’s a hint: Look to the west.
Next week, we’ll forget about all of this. Starting next Tuesday, Tommy Tomlinson will take over with his weekly True Top 10, a ranking of teams by actual performance instead of guesswork and history. For now, here’s everything you need to know about Sports on Earth’s preseason top 25. Argue away:
1. Oregon Ducks
Tweet Preview: Forget the South. The fastest offense in football resides in Phil Knight’s Pacific Northwest playground.
Program Status: No matter what you think of Oregon’s never-ending uniform combinations -- now featuring more feathers! -- being a Duck is as fashionable as it gets. Chip Kelly has won 34 games in only three years, with a national title game appearance and just two Pac-12 losses.
Names to Know: The offense’s defining characteristic is its up-tempo approach, hurrying to the line of scrimmage and picking up yards as quickly as possible. Oregon finished third in the nation with an average of 7.2 yards per play in 2011. Gone is 1,800-yard rusher LaMichael James, but it’s a testament to the talent of senior Kenjon Barner and sophomore De’Anthony Thomas that the offense won’t suffer much, if at all. Barner ran for 939 yards as the No. 2, while Thomas averaged an absurd 10.8 yards per carry on 55 attempts and led the team with 605 receiving yards as a freshman.
Pressing Issue: Redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota won the starting quarterback job over Bryan Bennett, and he does fit the Ducks’ speed requirement in the saddle of this spread running scheme. But a freshman QB is obviously a huge unknown for a team with the highest of expectations.
Key Games: Nov. 3 at USC; Nov. 10 at California; Nov. 17 Stanford
Bottom Line: It’s not often that a team can lose two key producers like James and Darron Thomas and achieve an even better result, but Oregon is good enough to compete for a spot in the national title game for the second time in three years. Barring an upset, everything comes down to USC, and the Trojans aren’t as invincible as they’re being made out to be. Oregon can end the SEC’s run of dominance.
Prediction: Pac-12 champions; BCS National Champions
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
Tweet Preview: Bet against Nick Saban at your own risk. Bama aims to repeat by dominating the line of scrimmage once again.
Program Status: Here are your kings of college football. Nick Saban has brought national titles to Tuscaloosa in two of the last three seasons, winning a ridiculous 48 games in four years after opening his tenure with a 7-6 record. If you want to win, there’s no better place.
Names to Know: Four starters return to what may be the best O-line in football, led by Outland Trophy winning center Barrett Jones and mammoth right tackle D.J. Fluker. Junior QB A.J. McCarron isn’t a star, but he’s a perfect fit for a balanced Bama offense that will continue to run, with 220-pound junior Eddie Lacy (7.1 yards per carry) replacing first-round pick Trent Richardson. Defensively, the amount of talent lost is staggering, but nose tackle Jesse Williams and linebacker C.J. Mosley are ready to fill the void.
Pressing Issue: All you need to know about the state of Alabama football is that 11 starters are gone, including five players taken in the first 35 picks of the draft, and there are few issues. Conventional wisdom indicates that Alabama’s phenomenal run of recruiting will allow it to reload with ease, replacing another star running back with more star running backs, as well as the three leading tacklers and receivers. Saban has given us no reason to question this line of thinking.
Key Games: Sept. 1 vs. Michigan (Arlington, Texas); Sept. 15 at Arkansas; Nov. 3 at LSU
Bottom Line: Rinse and repeat. Roll Tide, yet again.
Prediction: SEC champions; BCS National Championship game
3. South Carolina Gamecocks
Tweet Preview: An elite running back and a shutdown defense … just what you’d expect from the Head Ball Coach.
Program Status: South Carolina has always felt like a sleeping giant. Located in the talent-rich Southeast, with a big stadium and an enthusiastic fan base, the program’s lack of success -- including a winless season as recently as 1999 -- is strange. It’s taken a few years, but Steve Spurrier has South Carolina competing for conference titles, and maybe even a national championship.
Names to Know: All eyes are on stud running back Marcus Lattimore, who ran for 18 touchdowns as a freshman but saw his 2011 season get cut short by a torn ACL. The pass-happy Spurrier has adjusted to a balanced attack, and a healthy Lattimore is key. Amazingly, the tumultuous Stephen Garcia era ended with South Carolina still in one piece, leaving talented junior quarterback Connor Shaw to start and bring some stability to the position. Defensively, freak-of-nature end Jadeveon Clowney recorded eight sacks as a freshman and is headed for stardom.
Pressing Issue: With Alshon Jeffery gone, South Carolina’s leading returning receiver, Ace Sanders, caught only 29 passes last year. Shaw is a good player, but the receiving corps is thin, and he also needs improved play from an offensive line that ranked 87th nationally in sacks allowed.
Key Games: Oct. 6 Georgia; Oct. 13 at LSU; Oct. 20 at Florida
Bottom Line: The Gamecocks are the most talented team in the SEC East, but actually beating the West is another story. If Lattimore stays healthy, this might be Spurrier’s best chance.
Prediction: First, SEC East; Sugar Bowl
4. LSU Tigers
Tweet Preview: Zach Mettenberger gives fans hope of rediscovering the 50-yard line, while LSU’s defense attempts to reload without the Honey Badger.
Program Status: Les Miles is wildly unpredictable, but it’s easy to forget clock mismanagement and 1940s offenses when the Tigers have an unlimited supply of defensive talent. They’ve won double-digit games in five of Miles’ seven seasons, plus a 2007 national title.
Names to Know: The Tigers ranked 17th in the nation in scoring last season, but they’re all about defense and special teams. Junior Tharold Simon is ready to take the next step as another lockdown LSU cornerback, and Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery give the Tigers the best pair of ends in the country. Offensively, it all starts with the running game, where the Tigers have a deep stable of backs led by Spencer Ware and Michael Ford. Throw in receivers Odell Beckham and Russell Shepard, and this is still a good group of skill players, despite the loss of leading receiver Rueben Randle.
Pressing Issue: Junior college transfer Mettenberger, who began his career at Georgia, is expected to be the savior of LSU’s passing game, one that clearly needs saving after last year’s national title game debacle. He remains an unknown commodity, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll be a downgrade.
Key Games: Oct. 13 South Carolina; Nov. 3 Alabama; Nov. 23 at Arkansas
Bottom Line: Even if Mettenberger struggles, LSU will compete for the national title again. Ware leads a loaded backfield, Beckham is a promising receiver, four starters return on the O-line and the defense will find a way to keep flying around the field and making plays, although the loss of Tyrann Mathieu is big. At some point, the bounces may stop going LSU’s way, but this isn’t about luck. Few teams can match up with LSU’s defensive speed, talent and depth.
Prediction: Second, SEC West; Capital One Bowl
5. USC Trojans
Tweet Preview: Matt Barkley’s title dreams hinge on USC overcoming depth and defense issues after two years of NCAA purgatory.
Program Status: Troy remains standing. A two-year bowl ban is over, and the only remnants of NCAA punishment are the lost scholarships, which haven’t kept USC from landing the No. 1 spot in the preseason AP poll.
Names to Know: The biggest name to say no to the NFL was quarterback Barkley, who decided to stay in hopes of leading USC to a national championship. He’s the early favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the draft and the best preseason bet for the Heisman. It helps that he has a phenomenal supporting cast. USC doesn’t need to do anything exotic with its offense. The Trojans can line up in a pro-style system, running the ball and letting Barkley sling it outside to Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, who form that nation’s best receiving duo. Don’t forget that Lane Kiffin successfully put the full-court press on Penn State tailback Silas Redd, a 1,200-yard rusher who joins 1,000-yard rusher Curtis McNeal to drastically improve the backfield.
Pressing Issue: The Trojans solved one depth issue by plucking an All-Big Ten running back in Redd, but overall, the depth chart remains thin. Gone are the days of stashing five five-star tailbacks on the roster, and the defense in particular has problems, especially after the loss of cornerback Isiah Wiley for the season.
Key Games: Sept. 15 at Stanford; Oct. 4 at Utah; Nov. 3 Oregon
Bottom Line: The Kiffin narrative continues to turn. From hotshot coordinator, to Al Davis whipping boy, to SEC antagonist, the 37-year-old Kiffin is never far from the news. His personality still rubs many the wrong way, and the perceived ego will get another boost if he guides the Trojans to a national title while still dealing with NCAA penalties. The lack of depth, though, could cause them to stumble at some point.
Prediction: First, Pac-12 South; Rose Bowl
6. West Virginia Mountaineers
Tweet Preview: Break out the Red Bull: Dana Holgorsen’s ready to challenge for a Big 12 title in Morgantown.
Program Status: They’re newcomers to the Big 12, but the Mountaineers will be instant contenders in their new league. Holgorsen, a Big 12 veteran, led WVU to 70 points in the Orange Bowl in his first year as head coach, and they’re well equipped for a fairly smooth transition to a better league.
Names to Know: Long gone are the days of Rich Rodriguez’s spread-run scheme. The Mountaineers still spread the field, but Holgorsen is all about the Air Raid, which helped QB Geno Smith throw for 4,385 yards and 31 TDs last year. Smith should take another leap forward and become a Heisman candidate in year two of the system -- with the help of one of the nation’s best receiving corps, led by inside receiver Tavon Austin and Smith’s high school teammates Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney.
Pressing Issue: Defense isn’t the top priority in the Big 12, but West Virginia ranked seventh in the Big East in points allowed and last against the run. Holgorsen brought in one of his guys, Joe DeForest from Oklahoma State, to take over as coordinator, so at least there’s increased comfort on the staff. Still, they need to improve against the run and find a pass rusher to replace first-round pick Bruce Irvin. The change in coordinators also brings a change to a 3-4 defense after several years of the 3-3-5.
Key Games: Oct. 6 at Texas; Nov. 10 at Oklahoma State; Nov. 17 Oklahoma
Bottom Line: This is imperfect team that lost to Syracuse last year, and while it’s set to take a step forward, it must do so against tougher competition. That said, the Orange Bowl wasn’t a fluke. This offense is loaded with talented players in a system conducive to scoring, and that could mean big things in Holgorsen’s second year.
Prediction: Big 12 champions; Fiesta Bowl
7. Michigan Wolverines
Tweet Preview: Magician Denard Robinson is back for what seems like his 10th year of college ball, as Michigan tries for its first Big Ten title since 2004.
Program Status: It’s early, but Brady Hoke appears to have been the right hire. Rich Rodriguez’s teams actually improved by two games each year, but in one year with Hoke the Wolverines jumped from 7-6 to 11-2 and the Sugar Bowl, their first BCS bid since 2006.
Names to Know: Robinson is inhuman, as you surely know already. He should improve as a passer in his second year under coordinator Al Borges, who will hopefully manage him well after running him 221 times last year. Robinson made too many mistakes, with 15 interceptions, but he was still one of the nation’s most entertaining players, rushing for 1,176 yards and accounting for 36 touchdowns. Just keep him healthy, and he’ll make plays.
Pressing Issue: After ranking 108th in points allowed in Rodriguez’s final year, Michigan jumped an absurd 102 spots to sixth. Now the task is avoiding regression after Hoke lost three of four starters on the defensive line, including Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen.
Key Games: Sept. 1 vs. Alabama (Arlington, Texas), Oct. 20 Michigan State, Nov. 24 at Ohio State
Bottom Line: Michigan made huge strides in year one under Hoke, especially on defense. The defense might take a step back, but this group is good enough to make the Wolverines Big Ten favorites with Robinson back for his senior year.
Prediction: Big Ten champions; Rose Bowl
8. Virginia Tech Hokies
Tweet Preview: Beamer Ball is alive and well. ACC rival Florida State is more hyped, but don’t sleep on the most consistent team in college football.
Program Status: Frank Beamer hasn’t been able to get Virginia Tech back to the national title game after the 1999 loss to Florida State. But few programs have been as consistently good, which is impressive considering the Hokies were historically irrelevant pre-Beamer. They’ve won at least 10 games every season since 2003, and haven’t lost more than one game at Lane Stadium since 2002.
Names to Know: The Virginia Tech offense is woefully inexperienced, with only three returning starters. But the good news is one of those players is budding star quarterback Logan Thomas, who’s a Heisman sleeper. At 6-foot-6, 262 pounds, Thomas is one of the nation’s biggest and most talented quarterbacks. Last year he threw for 3,000 yards and added 469 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. The defense is what should keep the Hokies in the ACC title mix from the start, as nine starters return, including end James Gayle and cornerback Kyle Fuller.
Pressing Issue: Virginia Tech’s offense lost a lot of talent, including 1,700-yard rusher David Wilson, the top two receivers and four starting linemen. That’s a lot of rebuilding to do, putting significant pressure on Thomas, who was good in his first year as a starter but needs to limit his mistakes.
Key Games: Sept. 3 Georgia Tech; Oct. 20 at Clemson; Nov. 8 Florida State
Bottom Line: If Thomas matures as a passer, there’s little reason to think the Hokies can’t win the ACC again, despite Florida State’s expected improvement in the Atlantic division. The defense is experienced, and redshirt freshman Michael Holmes is a promising replacement for Wilson in the backfield.
Prediction: ACC champions; Orange Bowl
9. Oklahoma Sooners
Tweet Preview: Landry Jones aims for redemption as a senior, but a rough offseason could derail OU’s title hopes.
Program Status: Bob Stoops has taken heat for Oklahoma’s frequent BCS losses, but, still, Oklahoma has reached BCS games in an impressive eight of Stoops’ 13 seasons, winning conference titles and double-digit games with regularity.
Names to Know: It feels weird to call a quarterback who threw for 4,463 yards “embattled,” but here we are. Still a potential top-10 pick, Jones’ season spiraled downhill after the loss of the NCAA’s all-time leading receiver, Ryan Broyles, in November last season, and he finished the year with 15 interceptions. But let’s not get carried away with negatives. Sure, he must improve his decision-making, but he’s a four-year starter more than capable of operating OU’s spread offense at a high level.
Pressing Issue: The offseason hasn’t been kind. The receiving corps thinned out, thanks to the departure of Broyles, who finished his career with 349 catches, and the suspensions of Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks, who are practicing but don’t have a set return date. The Sooners will hope to make up for the lack of depth at WR by adding Penn State transfer Justin Brown, who can also return punts. Plus, in even worse news, offensive line starters Ben Habern (neck) and Tyler Evans (knee) were both lost for the season.
Key Games: Oct. 13 vs. Texas (Dallas); Nov. at West Virginia; Dec. 1 at TCU
Bottom Line: Oklahoma failed to live up to considerable preseason expectations last year, stumbling in losses to Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State. They’re almost unanimous conference favorites, but the problems at receiver and on the line will put significant strain on them. Oklahoma is far from a sure thing with a surging West Virginia now in the mix.
Prediction: Second, Big 12; Orange Bowl
10. Georgia Bulldogs
Tweet Preview: Like USC, Georgia’s depth has been ravaged, only without the sanctions. But a favorable schedule sets the Bulldogs up to contend in the East.
Program Status: Mark Richt has led Georgia to double-digit wins in seven of the last 10 seasons, but he faces relentless criticism. The pressure on him to win the SEC remains immense, as Georgia has dealt with all kinds of off-the-field problems, and lost the SEC title game by 32.
Names to Know: The Bulldogs’ defense stumbled a few times -- and began the season by giving up 35 points to Boise State and 45 points to South Carolina -- but ended up finishing fifth nationally. It remains loaded, returning nine starters, including nose tackle John Jenkins and linebacker Jarvis Jones (13.5 sacks), among other standouts. Offensively, Georgia’s season could hinge on the arm of All-SEC junior quarterback Aaron Murray, who took a big step forward as a sophomore with 35 touchdown passes.
Pressing Issue: The Georgia offense appeared set with Murray and sophomore tailback Isaiah Crowell, but off-the-field problems got Crowell kicked off the team and Carlton Thomas transferred, leaving a gaping hole at running back. Look out for freshman Keith Marshall, who practiced in the spring and could take the job. Crowell and Thomas are two of many departures from the roster, leaving Georgia undermanned and hovering around 70 scholarship players, well under the limit of 85.
Key Games: Sept. 8 at Missouri; Oct. 6 at South Carolina; Oct. 27 vs. Florida (Jacksonville)
Bottom Line: An easy cross-division schedule gives Georgia a leg up in the East, and Murray should continue to develop into one of the nation’s best pure passers. The lack of depth is big, though, and the season may come down to that trip to South Carolina.
Prediction: Second, SEC East; Outback Bowl
11. Florida State Seminoles
Tweet Preview: One of these years, the Seminoles will actually live up to expectations again. An elite defense has them in position to do so in 2012.
Program Status: For 14 years, through the ‘90s and into the new millennium, Florida State never lost more than two games. Times have changed. For the second straight year, Florida State starts the season in the top 10 of many national polls, but it hasn’t finished better than 17th since 2004, and has lost at least three games in 11 straight seasons.
Names to Know: Everything comes down to the development of former blue chip recruit E.J. Manuel at quarterback. He’s a big-time talent who has yet to truly break out. If he does, the Seminoles will be in great shape, thanks to a loaded and experienced defense that returns eight starters, including star sophomore tackle Timmy Jernigan and end Brandon Jenkins, who recorded eight sacks. They led the ACC in almost all major defensive categories last year and could do so again.
Pressing Issue: Manuel needs playmakers to step up around him. The supporting cast is experienced, but leading rusher Devonta Freeman had only 579 yards and is coming off a spring back injury, and no receiver caught more than 38 passes. The team also suffered a big blow with the dismissal of a playmaker in starting cornerback and star punt returner Greg Reid, who leaves big shoes to fill on both defense and special teams.
Key Games: Sept. 22 Clemson; Nov. 8 at Virginia Tech; Nov. 24 Florida
Bottom Line: Florida State didn’t give up more than 19 points in any of its last eight games. The defense is one of the nation’s best, so meeting expectations will be all about Manuel’s development and the improvement of the skill players.
Prediction: First, ACC Atlantic; Sugar Bowl
12. Wisconsin Badgers
Tweet Preview: Danny O’Brien won’t duplicate Russell Wilson’s success, but Montee Ball and the Badgers will keep rolling along.
Program Status: Bret Bielema has built on Barry Alvarez’s success, leading Wisconsin to three straight seasons with 10-plus wins and back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances (both losses). The Badgers keep things old school, bludgeoning opponents with a tough offensive line and strong ground game.
Names to Know: Tailback Montee Ball finished as a Heisman finalist last season, winning Big Ten Player of the Year honors with 1,923 rushing yards and an absurd 39 total touchdowns in 14 games. The Wisconsin offensive line must replace three starters, but the Badgers reload as well as anyone. Defensively, linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were all over the place, combining to make 293 total tackles.
Pressing Issue: No program has better taken advantage of the NCAA’s rule allowing players who have graduated but have eligibility left to transfer without penalty. Last year, Wisconsin welcomed N.C. State transfer quarterback Russell Wilson, and all he did was set the NCAA’s single-season passing efficiency record. Now they give another “free agent” a shot, as former Maryland QB Danny O’Brien will attempt the impossible task of duplicating Wilson’s success.
Key Games: Sept. 29 at Nebraska; Oct. 27 Michigan State; Nov. 17 Ohio State
Bottom Line: Wisconsin will cruise to a division title, thanks in part to the ineligibility of Ohio State and Penn State, which leaves Purdue, Illinois and Indiana as the only other Leaders Division contenders. The under-the-radar story is Wisconsin’s mass exodus on the coaching staff after offensive coordinator Paul Chryst took the Pitt job. With six new assistants and a new quarterback, there’s not a lot of stability.
Prediction: First, Big Ten Leaders; Capital One Bowl
13. Arkansas Razorbacks
Tweet Preview: We should have known the Bobby Petrino era would end in disgrace, but he leaves behind a team still talented enough to contend with a healthy Knile Davis.
Program Status: The Petrino era went down in off-the-field flames, leaving the program in the hands of former Louisville and Michigan State coach John L. Smith. Petrino had done a great job on the field, leading the Razorbacks to 21 wins over the last two years, although trying to get over the hump to win the conference in a division with Alabama, LSU and Auburn is the toughest challenge in college football.
Names to Know: Despite the loss of three receivers to the NFL, the offense remains loaded and should be even more potent. Welcome back, Davis. The junior running back was an All-SEC pick in 2010, rushing for 1,322 yards, but a broken ankle cost him his entire 2011 season. His return gives a huge boost to the running game, while senior quarterback Tyler Wilson is one of the nation’s best passers. Arkansas had the SEC’s No. 1 scoring offense last year, and is likely to repeat that.
Pressing Issue: The Razorbacks aren’t terrible defensively, but they stick out in the SEC, ranking ninth in the league against the run and 10th against the pass. The run defense was steamrolled a few times, giving up 381 yards to Texas A&M, 291 to Auburn and 286 to LSU.
Key Games: Sept. 15 Alabama; Nov. 10 at South Carolina; Nov. 23 LSU
Bottom Line: Arkansas will have to pull things together post-Petrino in a hurry, as Alabama comes to Fayetteville on Sept. 15. But there’s still relative stability with the rest of the coaching staff in place, including offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. Arkansas has the all-around talent to be a top-10 team, especially if Davis stays healthy.
Prediction: Third, SEC West; Cotton Bowl
14. Clemson Tigers
Tweet Preview: The Orange Bowl debacle is fresh on everyone’s minds, but the Tigers are in position to push for another conference title.
Program Status: “Clemsoning,” coming soon to an Oxford English Dictionary near you. Definitions include last year’s Orange Bowl, in which the Tigers allowed 70 points to West Virginia after finally winning the ACC. But there is good news: Clemson won 10 games last year, and the ACC is winnable again. Perhaps foolishly, all of the preseason hype belongs to Florida State.
Names to Know: Sophomore receiver and return man Sammy Watkins is one of the brightest young stars in college football. He averaged 25 yards per kick return and caught 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns in an explosive freshman season. Of course, this is Clemson, so there’s bad news -- Watkins is suspended for the first two games, including a showdown with Auburn in Atlanta to open the season. When he returns, he has a stud quarterback throwing him the football, as junior Tajh Boyd flashed stardom last year with 3,828 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Pressing Issue: It’s worth repeating that the Tigers gave up 70 points in a BCS game. They have the illustrious honor of being the only team to ever do that in a bowl. Not surprisingly, the Tigers ranked near the bottom of the ACC in most defensive categories. Good luck to former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who is getting big money for the tall task of reshaping the unit.
Key Games: Sept. 22 at Florida State; Oct. 20 Virginia Tech; Nov. 24 South Carolina
Bottom Line: With Watkins, this can be one of the most explosive offenses in college football. Florida State has the edge with its elite defense, but the ACC race should be competitive.
Prediction: Second, ACC Atlantic; Chick-fil-A Bowl
15. Ohio State Buckeyes
Tweet Preview: The over/under on number of “Urban Renewal” headlines when Ohio State finishes 10-2 is 5,000 ½.
Program Status: Forget about a year of bowl banishment and championship ineligibility, and forget last year’s 6-7 record. Urban Meyer is ready to take over the Midwest. Apologies to the rest of the Big Ten.
Names to Know: Obviously, Meyer will make better use of sophomore Braxton Miller than the conservative Jim Tressel would have. Miller and the Buckeyes ranked a horrendous 115th in passing last year under interim coach Luke Fickell, but Miller was just a freshman, and he still led the team in rushing. Look for tight end Jake Stoneburner, who scored on seven of his 14 catches last year, to be more heavily involved outside the red zone. Despite the losing record, the Ohio State defense wasn’t bad last year. The group is talented and experienced, led by end John Simon and nose tackle Johnathan Hankins.
Pressing Issue: Awful is the only way to describe last year’s Buckeye passing game. No receiver caught more than 14 passes, which is actually kind of impressive. Most of the season was played without No. 1 receiver DeVier Posey, but he’s gone to the NFL, leaving an unproven group led by big-play man Devin Smith.
Key Games: Sept. 29 at Michigan State; Nov. 17 at Wisconsin; Nov. 24 Michigan
Bottom Line: No championships can be won, but Ohio State will still be interesting to watch, as Meyer, who’s won big everywhere, looks to turn around a program that won at least 10 games in each of Tressel’s final six seasons but fell apart last year. It shouldn’t be difficult -- the offense has issues, but the combination of Meyer and Miller could be enough to win a lot of games.
Prediction: Second, Big Ten Leaders; ineligible for a bowl
16. Michigan State Spartans
Tweet Preview: The 56-year-old Mark Dantonio is a rising star as a coach, and has the Spartans poised to fight for double-digit victories once again.
Program Status: An underperforming, middle-of-the-road program for a long time, Michigan State has experienced a resurgence under Dantonio, thanks in part to a great defense. The Spartans won 11 games for the first time ever in 2010 and repeated in 2011. The next step is winning a Big Ten title.
Names to Know: With quarterback Kirk Cousins gone, the Spartans are all about defense and running the football. Eight of the top nine tacklers return, including outside linebacker Denicos Allen, who finished second in the league with 11 sacks, and All-Big Ten end William Gholston. The running game will turn to promising junior Le’Veon Bell, who won the starting job in the middle of the 2011 season and finished with 948 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Pressing Issue: The Big Ten’s No. 2 passing offense was decimated by graduations. Cousins, Michigan State’s all-time leading passer, is gone, along with his top four receivers, including 1,300-yard receiver B.J. Cunningham. Next up is junior Andrew Maxwell, who has at least been in the system a few years, and the hope is that junior Bennie Fowler emerges as a threat at receiver after missing most of last season with a foot injury.
Key Game: Aug. 31 Boise State; Oct. 20 at Michigan; Oct. 27 at Wisconsin
Bottom Line: The defense is good enough to keep the Spartans in the Big Ten chase all season, and Bell is good enough to carry the offense. But Denard Robinson gives Michigan the edge in the Legends Division.
Prediction: Second, Big Ten Legends; Outback Bowl
17. Stanford Cardinal
Tweet Preview: The offense appears decimated by departures, including Luck’s, but hopes are still high thanks to the ball carrying of star senior Stepfan Taylor.
Program Status: Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck elevated Stanford into the national picture and to back-to-back BCS games, but now the real challenge begins. David Shaw did a great job in his first season, but Luck is about as irreplaceable as it gets, even if Stanford is built to run the ball.
Names to Know: With Luck gone, the focus turns to the running game and talented senior Stepfan Taylor, who rather quietly ran for 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. That’s two straight 1,000-yard seasons for him in this pro-style offense. With Luck gone, we’ll also see a solid defense, led by outside linebacker Chase Thomas, will also be counted on more.
Pressing Issue: Replacing Luck is impossible, so good luck to junior Josh Nunes, who didn’t throw a pass last year but won the job over Brett Nottingham. Nunes must also cope with the loss of tight end Coby Fleener, guard David DeCastro and tackle Jonathan Martin, who were all selected in the first 50 picks of April’s draft.
Key Games: Sept. 15 USC; Oct. 13 at Notre Dame; Nov. 17 at Oregon
Bottom Line: The Cardinal is still in good position to be a Pac-12 contender, but USC and Oregon should pull away this year. Reaching a third straight BCS game will be tough, but nine or 10 wins is still possible.
Prediction: Second, Pac-12 North; Alamo Bowl
18. TCU Horned Frogs
Tweet Preview: TCU is back in The Show, and the Frogs might just be the best team in the state of Texas.
Program Status: The Horned Frogs are the nomads of American sports. From the Southwest Conference to the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West to a historic Big East stint in which they didn’t play a game, they’ve done it all. The Big 12 promotion is well deserved after more than a decade of success under Gary Patterson, including a 47-5 record the last four years.
Names to Know: The Big 12 has been all about quarterback play, and junior Casey Pachall should fit in well. He was solid in his first year as a starter, throwing 25 touchdown passes, and junior receiver Josh Boyce should emerge as one of the best in the league. Of course, Gary Patterson has always been known for his defenses at TCU, and while there were some lapses with an inexperienced unit last year, the unit is in relatively good shape overall, led by end Stansly Maponga.
Pressing Issue: The most problematic area is probably the secondary, where four of five starters in the 4-2-5 scheme are gone. TCU ranked sixth in the Mountain West against the pass last year, and now the Frogs must deal with Big 12 passing games. Gary Patterson has traditionally put together great defenses, but 2012 presents a big challenge.
Key Games: Nov. 3 at West Virginia; Nov. 24 at Texas; Dec. 1 Oklahoma
Bottom Line: TCU might open the year 7-0, but the end of their season is one of the nation’s toughest. The offense has the weapons to keep pace with most of the Big 12, but the Horned Frogs are still a step behind Oklahoma and West Virginia.
Prediction: Third, Big 12; Cotton Bowl
19. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Tweet Preview: Rex Burkhead may get 300 carries as Nebraska tries to shift out of neutral under Bo Pelini.
Program Status: Pelini has gone 9-4 or 10-4 in each of his four seasons in Lincoln. The program remains a top-25 team, but has been treading water in the nation’s second tier ever since the blowout national championship loss in 2001.
Names to Know: Prolonged viewing of Taylor Martinez’s throwing motion may cause abnormal stress. Hope that Nebraska continues to be heavy on the run, as this can look a bit like an old school Cornhusker ground attack, which is a good thing. Martinez racked up 874 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, while senior I-back Burkhead ran for 1,357 yards and nine touchdowns to earn All-Big Ten honors.
Pressing Issue: The top players on a mediocre defense are gone, including leading tackler Lavonte David at linebacker and tackle Jared Crick. The Blackshirts ranked a pedestrian 64th nationally against the run in a conference loaded with tailbacks, with more than 200 rushing yards allowed in three of their four losses.
Key Games: Oct. 6 at Ohio State; Oct. 27 Michigan; Nov. 3 at Michigan State
Bottom Line: The Burkhead/Martinez combination on the ground is outstanding, but the division is tough thanks to the Michigan schools. Perhaps Pelini can at least nudge the Huskers down to three losses.
Prediction: Third, Big Ten Legends; Insight Bowl
20. Texas Longhorns
Tweet Preview: The Longhorns are getting preseason sleeper attention thanks to their defense, but a shaky QB situation needs to resolve itself for them to bounce back.
Program Status: After a dominant stretch that included a national title in 2005 and a 25-2 record in 2008-09, the Longhorns hit a wall, dropping to 5-7 and 8-5 the last two seasons. Texas will bounce back soon -- it recruits too well not to -- but the Big 12 actually got tougher by adding West Virginia and TCU.
Names to Know: Defense carried the Longhorns last year, and it all starts up front with the pass-rush tandem of junior Jackson Jeffcoat (eight sacks) and senior Alex Okafor (seven sacks). Combine that with an elite secondary headlined by safety Kenny Vaccaro and cornerbacks Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom, and this has the makings of one of the nation’s best defenses under coordinator Manny Diaz.
Pressing Issue: All eyes remain focused on the Longhorns’ issue behind center, where sophomore David Ash has been named starter over junior Case McCoy. Both struggled last year, with Ash throwing four touchdowns an eight interceptions. Texas hasn’t been able to settle on one because neither has come close to truly separating himself.
Key Games: Sept. 29 at Oklahoma State; Oct. 6 West Virginia; Oct. 13 vs. Oklahoma (Dallas)
Bottom Line: Can Texas win in the Big 12 with such a mediocre offense? The defense is arguably the league’s best, but either Ash or McCoy has to emerge as at least a dependable option capable of making more plays through the air.
Prediction: Fourth, Big 12; Alamo Bowl
21. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Tweet Preview: The Cowboys got 10 years younger at quarterback as attention shifts back to their underrated running game.
Program Status: The money of de facto team owner T. Boone Pickens has shaped Oklahoma State into a contender, as the Cowboys have won 41 games in the last four seasons under Mike Gundy. “I’m a man, I’m 40!” seems like ancient history.
Names to Know: The Cowboys have been known for gaudy passing numbers lately, but they’ve actually had a 1,200-yard rusher five straight seasons. Junior Joseph Randle was fantastic in his first year as a starter, totaling 1,216 yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground while being overshadowed by Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. Not only do the Pokes have Randle, but speedy junior Jeremy Smith also chipped in 646 yards, nine touchdowns and an average of 7.1 yards per carry, giving them a potent one-two punch.
Pressing Issue: Previous quarterback Brandon Weeden is almost 30. New quarterback Wes Lunt isn’t even 20. From Weeden, the former minor league baseball player, the Cowboys now turn to true freshman Lunt, who won the job in the spring. Graduating high school early and working in the offseason helps, but obviously it’s a big step from Weeden to Lunt. The Cowboys’ scoring will likely fall, shifting focus to a defense that finished 107th in yards allowed but got away with it by forcing turnovers.
Key Games: Sept. 29 Texas; Nov. 10 West Virginia; Nov. 24 at Oklahoma
Bottom Line: Growing pains are all but certain for Lunt, and this offense won’t be nearly as explosive. Throw in a defense that will likely regress in the turnover department, and there are many concerns. But if the Cowboys can continue to protect the quarterback, they’ll be competitive, with Randle and Smith leading the way.
Prediction: Fifth, Big 12; Insight Bowl
22. Utah Utes
Tweet Preview: A forgotten team in the Pac-12, Utah’s best chance for divisional supremacy has passed with USC back in business.
Program Status: Utah inexplicably lost to Colorado to knock itself out of the Pac-12 South race last year. Still, the transition from the Mountain West has been fairly smooth, as the Utes capped off a decent overall season with a Sun Bowl win over Georgia Tech. Utah may never be consistently great, but the program’s on solid ground under Kyle Whittingham.
Names to Know: Massive senior nose tackle Star Lotulelei is one of the nation’s best defenders. A junior college transfer in 2010, he started all 13 games last year and earned All-Pac-12 honors. NFL scouts are drooling over him. On offense, Utah has an underappreciated running back in the 186-pound John White, another junior college transfer who made his Utah debut with 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Pressing Issue: The Utes have a good foundation on defense and at running back, but there’s a lot of uncertainty surround the shoulder of quarterback Jordan Wynn, who missed much of last season thanks to surgery and dealt with soreness in camp. If he plays, will he be 100 percent?
Key Games: Oct. 4 USC; Oct. 13 at UCLA; Nov. 10 at Washington
Bottom Line: The Pac-12 appears to be considered a three-team league by most, but don’t sleep on the Utes. The schedule is favorable, and a healthy Wynn could give an experienced team a boost.
Prediction: Second, Pac-12 South; Holiday Bowl
23. Louisville Cardinals
Tweet Preview: With West Virginia gone, the Big East is wide open, and young QB Teddy Bridgewater could lead Louisville to its first post-Petrino BCS game.
Program Status: Louisville has had some brutal performances in the last couple of years, but Charlie Strong still got the Cardinals to back-to-back bowl games in his first two seasons after a three-year drought. The program’s as good as any in the current Big East.
Names to Know: Touted quarterback recruit Bridgewater had an unspectacular freshman season with 14 touchdowns and 12 picks, but that’s to be expected for a raw young player. On the positive side, he completed 64.5 percent of his passes. The running game is mediocre, at best, so the focus is Bridgewater, along with a defense that was phenomenal against the run and boasts a very good safety in junior Hakeem Smith.
Pressing Issue: Bridgewater needs help. The offensive line returns four starters, but Louisville also ranked 110th in sacks allowed last year. A freshman quarterback didn’t help, but it’s not as if the running game was strong either. Junior Dominique Brown, a converted quarterback who averaged 3.8 yards per carry, is next in line for the running back job.
Key Games: Oct. 13 at Pittsburgh; Oct. 20 South Florida; Nov. 29 at Rutgers
Bottom Line: Louisville is the only Big East team ranked in the preseason. The conference will be competitive enough, with several solid teams, but if Bridgewater develops as expected, the Cardinals could find themselves out front.
Prediction: Big East champions; Fiesta Bowl
24. Boise State Broncos
Tweet Preview: The NCAA’s winningest quarterback is gone, and the Broncos are back to sleeper status. That probably means, oh, 11 wins instead of the usual 12.
Program Status: It’s time to stop doubting Boise. The Broncos have won at least 12 games in five of six seasons under Chris Petersen. They’ve beaten Oregon, Oregon State, Virginia Tech, Georgia, Oklahoma and TCU. Now they continue their climb with one year left in the Mountain West before joining the Big East.
Names to Know: This is a team of unknowns after the loss of most of its familiar faces, but, improbably, they’ll just reload anyway. The quarterback situation remains unclear, so that may mean a steady dose of veteran tailback D.J. Harper, who ran for 559 yards and nine touchdowns in a complementary role last year. Joining Harper in what still will be a solid skill group is 6-foot-3 receiver Matt Miller, who tied for the team lead with 62 catches as a freshman and scored nine times.
Pressing Issue: OK, so there is reason for some doubt. This is the most inexperienced Boise team we’ve seen in years. Incredibly efficient quarterback Kellen Moore is gone, to be replaced by junior Joe Southwick. Early draft picks Doug Martin at running back and Shea McClellin at defensive end are also gone. The defense returns only two starters. Many pieces must be picked up quickly, especially with the season’s toughest opponent in week one.
Key Games: Aug. 31 at Michigan State; Oct. 6 at Southern Miss; Dec. 1 at Nevada
Bottom Line: The Broncos must replace a ridiculous amount of talent, so returning to a BCS bowl after two years in the Las Vegas Bowl is unlikely. Still, picking anyone else in the Mountain West would be foolish.
Prediction: Mountain West champions; Maaco Bowl Las Vegas
25. Kansas State Wildcats
Tweet Preview: Every other word used to describe Collin Klein this year will be “gritty,” but he’ll have a tough time duplicating last year’s stats.
Program Status: Bill Snyder is incredible. Nobody pays much attention to this Manhattan, but it didn’t take long for Snyder to restore respectability after the, um, interesting days of Ron Prince. A 10-3 record in 2011 brought Snyder’s career record to 159-83-1 at a school that’s had little success under anyone else.
Names to Know: Collin Klein, who played receiver as a freshman, was a revelation in his first full-year as a starter. While he breaks the Big 12 mold, in that he threw for only 1,918 yards, he had a ridiculously good season as a runner, rushing for 1,141 yards and finishing second nationally with 27 touchdowns on the ground. On defense, cornerback Nigel Malone helped a mediocre unit by intercepting seven passes.
Pressing Issue: The Wildcats won last year by running the ball and winning the turnover battle, but seven of their 10 wins were by seven points or less, raising questions about sustainability in 2012. Klein is mediocre as a passer, while the defense gave up 500 passing yards to both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. They can’t afford to fall behind.
Key Games: Sept. 22 at Oklahoma; Oct. 20 at West Virginia; Dec. 1 Texas
Bottom Line: Kansas State has a tough task in trying to duplicate last year’s 10-win season, but Snyder almost always finds a way. The team will go as Klein goes, after he broke the NCAA record for rushing touchdowns as a quarterback, but Snyder will have to ease the burden on him to keep his star player healthy.
Prediction: Sixth, Big 12; Holiday Bowl